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Old Testament Resources for Christian Worship: Surprising insight

Touching the Altar, edited by Carol M. Bechtel, shows how the often-neglected Old Testament is essential to understand the purpose of worship, giving practical ideas any church can apply. A feature story on using Old Testament values in worship.

Chances are you’ve heard far more sermons based on the New Testament than the Old Testament. You probably have a pocket New Testament but not a pocket Old Testament.

And, given that the Apostle Paul said we are “not under law but under grace,” you’d not be alone in giving little attention to the Bible’s first two-thirds, other than, perhaps, Psalms and the parts of Isaiah quoted in Handel’s Messiah.

So you might not expect a book of essays mainly by Old Testament scholars to have much relevance for planning worship in your church. But Touching the Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship really does. It shows how the Old Testament is essential to understanding our purpose in worship and the fullness of the gospel.

“Rescuing” the Old Testament

“The Old Testament is more than just a ‘resource’ for Christian worship. It is, in a very real way, part of how God shapes who we are as Christians. It’s often said that we can’t understand the New Testament without understanding the Old Testament.

“In working on Touching the Altar, I’ve been convicted of that again and again. Even readers who know the Old Testament well are going to be saying, ‘Oh, is that why we do it this way!’ or ‘We need to recover this insightnow!’ ” says Carol Bechtel, who edited the book and teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Bechtel is convinced that if preachers, seminarians, and worship leaders immersed themselves in the Old Testament, there would be more preaching from those books…delivered without apology.

She says that even when people preach on the Old Testament, they often do so with Marcionist assumptions. (Marcion was a religious heretic who rejected the Old Testament.)

“We seem to think the Old Testament is inferior and needs to be rescued by a New Testament text. I don’t have any qualms about focusing on an Old Testament passage and not trying to bail it out with a New Testament passage. It’s Christian scripture. We can’t help but read through the lens of Jesus Christ, but there’s something very important about giving an Old Testament passage room to be itself,” Bechtel says.

She explains that not reading or studying the whole Bible leads people to caricature one testament as about God’s wrath and the other as about God’s grace. “But there’s plenty of wrath in the New, and where did we learn about grace but in the Old?” she asks.

Weekly worship application

Touching the Altar doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive approach to worship’s Old Testament roots. But it provides an excellent opening that invites readers to explore key biblical themes and metaphors for understanding worship and the gospel.

Chapters on Old Testament concepts of Sabbath, drama, idolatry, the prophets, sacred space, justice, and wisdom all include applications for congregational worship.

Those who want to use the arts to enrich worship will appreciate Thomas Boogaart’s essay on recovering the Old Testament tradition of drama in worship.

Corinne Carvalho’s essay on sacred space tells how worshipers may be “sucked up into the vortex of sacred reality and tumbled head over heels before God’s presence.” Woodcuts by Margaret Adams Parkerfurther enhance the book.

Preachers who don’t follow the lectionary can easily base a sermon series on each chapter. Each chapter offers hymn suggestions, from classics such as “Sing praise to God who reigns above” to newer hymns by John Bell, Carl Daw Jr., Sylvia Dunstan, Jaroslav Vajda, and Brian Wren. Suggested online and print resources will help you go deeper into each theme.

Which God?

Christians sometimes feel that all those Old Testament warnings about idolatry don’t apply today. Sure, we know not to make gods of money, sex, or power. But we don’t sacrifice to idols or engage in temple prostitution, so why bother with much of the prophetic passages?

“For anyone who works to plan and lead worship, idolatry needs to be a regular matter of concern,” John Witvliet writes in his chapter onusing Isaiah to recover textual contrasts and correct theological astigmatism. Witvliet directs Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

He defines contemporary idolatry as worshiping “false or distorted conceptions about God.” It’s so easy to slip into worshiping the God we feel comfortable with rather than the God of the Bible. Maybe that’s why most Old Testament words used in worship come from Psalms or what Witvliet calls “the pretty texts” of Isaiah—“Comfort, comfort ye my people,” “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord,” “How beautiful…are the feet.”

Lifting pretty texts out of context lets us privatize religion and ignore God’s longing for justice. It also means we totally miss how Isaiah uses contrast, “often with rhetoric that features biting sarcasm and mocking irony that is so derisive it almost feels irreligious,” to describe the gap between false worship and what God wants.

For example, without reading Isaiah 41:21-29, which contrasts God’s power with idols’ “deeds,” you might misread Isaiah 42:10a as “Sing to the Lord a new song” or “Sing to the Lord a new song”—instead of “Sing to the Lord a new song.”

Witvliet’s advice for using Isaiah in its biblical context works for other Old Testament books as well.

  • Slightly expand a lectionary reading or briefly introduce it, such as “In contrast to false gods, God’s servant brings justice, healing, and peace.”
  • Publicly read scripture true to context. Instead of “He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” try “He will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:11).
  • Preach a biblical passage’s contrasts “between light and dark, folly and wisdom, the gods and God.”
  • Choose “in between words” that weave each worship element with the sermon or service theme. For a call to worship, you might say, “If you come to worship today exhausted from chasing after the world’s gods, hear this invitation of Jesus: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary, for I will give you rest.’”

Old Testament Gospel Themes

The term 24/7 is shorthand for the relentless, always-connected pace of North American culture. You’re likely too busy to think much about how the concepts of days, seasons, or years relate to natural cycles—but the idea of a seven-day week does not.

Knowing the roots of the seven-day week may help you see where we, as a church and culture, have gone wrong. Touching the Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship reveals God’s gift of the Sabbath as so much more than a list of do’s and don’ts, according to Carol Bechtel. She edited the book and teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Touching the Altar begins with the chapter “Sacred Time: The Sabbath and Christian Worship,” in which Dennis T. Olson casts a large vision of all creation resting in and worshiping God.

Recover the Sabbath

Olson, who teaches Old Testament theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, provides “a beautifully succinct explanation of how the weekly seventh day Sabbath and first day Lord’s Day were conflated. Reading it caused a longing for what has been lost and revised my own sense of what honoring the Sabbath is about,” Bechtel says.

Olson quotes Jeremy Rifkin in Time Wars, who explains, “To know a people is to know the time values they live by.” Olson adds, “In many ways, the biblical Sabbath represents a set of time values at odds with contemporary culture.”

God asked the Israelites to do all their work in six days and set aside the seventh day as “a Sabbath day to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8-11). Many Christians have grown up with proscribed and prescribed Sunday behaviors. Olson, however, sees Sabbath keeping as a “friendly commandment of weekly rest.”

Observing it reminds Israel that it’s not their “human power or efforts that make them holy, special, and set apart from others. Rather, it is God who makes them whole and holy.” This gift of resting in God extends to animals, slaves, resident aliens, and the land.

Deuteronomy’s Sabbath laws include redistributing tithes so those in need “may come and eat their fill”; resetting economic and social relationships every seven years so there will “be no one in need among you”; and restoring everyone’s original land inheritance during the Year of Jubilee (the 50th year, that is, the year after seven cycles of seven years).

“Resting from work and gathering in worship every seventh day serves to generate memory. We remember who we are and who we were. We were slaves, and now we are free. We remember what God did for us: the Lord brought us out of slavery. We remember our core identity: we are God’s own people….

“[Seeing] the Sabbath as rooted in God’s creating activity readily enables connections among practices of rest, worship, justice, and the care of the earth,” Olson says.

Name what’s wrong

Bechtel says that besides losing touch with Sabbath meaning, North American churches are “thirsty for the lost tradition of lament. The Old Testament not only makes room for our questions and our pain, but gives us the words to express it…to ‘hallow’ it, even, by bringing it into the gracious presence of God.”

Touching the Altar makes several connections between lament and congregational life and worship. Olson laments for clergy who burn out doing God’s work but not accepting God’s gift of the Sabbath.

Busy teaching, preaching, and traveling as president of the Reformed Church in America General Synod, Bechtel knows how important –and difficult—Sabbath keeping is. “When I teach about the Sabbath, I start with a confession of sin. I say, ‘I’m struggling to figure this out myself,’ ” she says.

Ellen F. Davis, who teaches Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, includes two sermons in her chapter on the Prophets. The first, based on Jeremiah 4:22-26 and 31:31-37 and preached on Earth Day, laments “the highly politicized sin of ecological destruction.”

Davis’ second sermon, preached during Lent, compares Jesus’ weeping for Jerusalem to prophetic visions of how sin wounds us and God. She asks what these laments mean “in concrete, historical terms…. [when] human sin appears to shape our world more powerfully than do God’s dreams.”

Davis says that in Zechariah’s vision (chapter 8), God’s “hot-burning love” melts “the glacial reality of sinfulness.” Similarly we who “walk the way of the cross,” bitterly lamenting how history distorts God’s will, should “focus our attention—not on the ghastly spectacle of human sin, but on the one who is willingly wounded by it.”

Do justice

In his chapter on the hope of the poor, J. Clinton McCann Jr. notes that churches often ignore psalms that advocate for the poor. “The Psalms, fully understood, will inevitably contribute to the church’s appreciation of the connection between worship and our search for justice,” McCann says. He teaches biblical interpretation at Eden Theological Seminary near St. Louis.

Many worship leaders prefer to use only praise psalms, because they find lament psalms depressing, negative, and whiny. But McCann describes three ways that using lament or complaint psalms in worship promotes justice.

First, these psalms give voice to victims who are often silenced elsewhere. Even if you can’t personally identify with being badly hurt or victimized, McCann suggests using these psalms as prayers that “bring before God and the community of faith the things in the world that are not right.”

Second, praying these psalms on behalf of others pushes us “to consider the possibility that we are complicit in injustice in our own communities and throughout the world.”

Finally, McCann says that asking God for justice is countercultural, because it means admitting we need help. He sees psalms that sound violent and vengeful not as pleas for personal revenge but requests that the unjust will experience what they are inflicting on others and that things will be set right.

Through these psalms, “we are praying for and committing ourselves to the enactment of God’s world-encompassing justice, righteousness, and shalom,” McCann says. Both psalmic prayers and the Lord’s Prayer (“thy kingdom come”) affirm “the inextricable connection between worship and justice.”

Seeing this link helps worshipers truly pray and sing praise psalms. McCann says that realizing “we are not our own,” that we don’t deserve or earn God’s grace, fills us with gratitude for God’s “universe-encompassing” care and justice—which embraces “not only all peoples but also all creatures and all things.”

Learn More

• Buy and discuss Touching the Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship, edited by Carol Bechtel.

• Start a Sabbath-themed small group. Begin with Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting by Marva Dawn or Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba.

• Visit En-Gedi Resource Center online to learn more about understanding Jesus and the Bible within their Jewish culture and historical context.

• The Seven Day Circle by Eviatar Zerubavel, reviewed by the New York Times, gives the fascinating history of how humans began reckoning time in seven-day weeks.

• If singing, praying, or studying the hymns in Touching the Altar intrigues you, than pursue your interest in relevant new hymns. Check out The Hymn Society, The Hymnary, and Sing! A New Creation.

• If Thomas Boogaart’s chapter on drama and the sacred in the Old Testament moves you to “put feet” under Old Testament texts, then consult Dave Marsh,Drama 4 ChurchReligious Drama Society in Great Britain, and Riding Lights Theatre Company.

• Browse related stories on Old Testament dramaOld Testament sermons,places to encounter God, and  Sabbath rest.

Start a Discussion

  • Which Old Testament metaphors or themes is your congregation most familiar with? Which worship elements or church seasons most help worshipers connect Old Testament stories with Christ’s ongoing work?
  • What most intrigues—or bothers—you about how Touching the Altarconnects the ideas of the Sabbath and the gospel with worship, peace, justice, and caring for the earth?
  • What do you think of the concept that idolatry today means worshiping a distorted idea of God—one we feel comfortable with instead of God as revealed in the Bible?
  • In what ways does your worship and congregational life fit in with or present an alternative to contemporary culture’s time values? What does this teach worshipers about God?

    Share Your Wisdom

    What is the best way you’ve found to begin including more Old Testament content in worship? 

    • Have you made an effort to help worshipers understand the Jewish and Old Testament roots of Christianity? If so, which resources, songs, sermon starters, dramas, visuals, or other worship helps can you recommend?
    • Did you develop a template, survey, or checklist to measure your congregation’s Old Testament knowledge or your worship services’ Old Testament content? If so, which Old Testament themes did you find easier or harder to teach—because you couldn’t find resources?